Ditch the screen and pick up the paperback: here’s the science behind reading before bed

Reading before bed is a tradition that goes back centuries. However, in recent years, the typical routine of turning pages by lamplight has more or less been swapped with lying in the dark scrolling through our smartphones.

But trading the written word for the world wide web could be having a negative impact on your sleep health, and on your health overall. Reading has been attributed with stress reduction, increased creativity and even a reduction in the likelihood of reducing Alzheimer’s disease. We looked to expert advice and scientific evidence to explore just how beneficial it can be to pick up a book before bed, and how this compares to smartphone scrolling.

The research

One of the main benefits of bedtime reading is relaxation, which in turn can help improve sleep quality and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. A study from the University of Sussex highlights this. In the study, participants’ stress levels were raised before attempts were made to reduce them. Dr David Lewis, Cognitive Neuropsychologist on the study, described the results: “Reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68 per cent.”

This compares to listening to music (61%), drinking a hot beverage (54%) and taking a walk (42%). It only took 6 minutes for stress levels to be reduced by reading.

Reading a book allows your mind to wander from the daily stresses and worries which may be causing tension. It also relaxes your muscles and slows your breathing, leaving you ultimately feeling calmer. According to The Sleep Council, this has beneficial consequences for your sleep quality, as “39% of people who are in the habit of reading before they go to sleep, sleep very well.”

But as well as helping your mind to relax, reading can also help boost your brain power. Like any other muscle in your body, your brain needs a regular workout to keep it healthy. Reading is a great way to work out your brain while doing something that’s fun and relaxing, as reading is more neurologically challenging than processing images or speaking.

In fact, president and director of research at Haskins Laboratories, Ken Hugh, PhD, says: “parts of the brain that have evolved for other neurological functions — such as vision, language and associative learning — connect in a specific neural circuit for reading, which is very challenging.”

Another study, carried out by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, found that reading can even help reduce the risk of developing degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. The results of the study found that people who engage their brains in activities such as puzzle solving, playing chess and reading are 2.5 times less likely to develop the condition, as Alzheimer’s is a condition associated with limited brain activity.

By reading before bed, you’re also exercising your creativity as well as your brain activity. Keith E. Stanovich, Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto and leading researcher in the psychology of reading, describes how reading broadens your mind by allowing you to see things from different perspectives. Stanovich says:

“Our data demonstrates time and again that print exposure is associated with vocabulary, general knowledge, and verbal skills.”

Reading to children at bedtime is especially important. Studies show that children are exposed to 50% more words from books than they are from television, so a bedtime story is the ideal way to improve their vocabulary.

Reading is a much healthier pre-sleep activity than screen time

So we can see that reading is a healthy activity to incorporate into your pre-sleep ritual, but how does it compare to the popular pastimes of binge-watching or scrolling through our phones before drifting off?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, the results show that using your phone before bed doesn’t come close to the benefits of reading. In fact, it could be having a detrimental effect on your sleep quality.

A study of over 3,500 adults by APA found that people who considered themselves ‘constant checkers’ (i.e. those who checked their smartphones regularly, first thing in the morning and last thing at night) reported higher levels of stress than participants who spent less time attached to their device. In fact, nearly one in five US adults say technology stresses them out, and the same sentiment is present in the UK.

The study found that 42% of constant checkers felt stressed out by their social media feeds, while 42% also felt stressed about how social media was impacting their mental and physical health. This compared to just 27% in people who spent less time on their phones. 44% of constant checkers felt disconnected from their families as a result of their smartphone, while 65% believed that taking a detox from the digital world would be beneficial.

The prominence of stress among bedtime smartphone users is no coincidence. Things like social media scrolling, playing video games or catching up on work before bed all combine to increase stress, igniting our body’s Palaeolithic ‘fight or flight’ response to combat invisible stressors.  This leads to the release of cortisol, our body’s stress hormone, in our adrenal gland. Cortisol is sleep’s worst nightmare as it’s designed to keep you alert and awake.

And it’s not just falling asleep which can be impacted by social media scrolling. You could still be at risk of reduced sleep quality even after you fall asleep. Almost three quarters (72%) of children aged between 6 and 17 years old sleep with at least one electronic device in their bedroom, often close to hand. Thanks to the vibrations of late night texts, calls, emails and reminders, combined with the negative impact of checking their phone immediately before bed, this can cost young people up to an hour of sleep a night.

The science behind sleep

One common misconception about using your phone before bed is that streaming an episode of your current series of choice is better than scrolling through social media or catching up on work. While it’s true that you don’t get the same stress from a television series, as it does provide a level of escapism similar to reading, using your smartphone for any reason before sleep is generally a bad idea. And this comes down to the science behind your phone’s screen light.

Serotonin and melatonin are two hormones associated with sleep. Put simply, serotonin is a feel-good neurotransmitter that helps us feel more energized, while melatonin is a hormone which helps us wind down and relax. So naturally, taking steps to increasing your serotonin intake in the morning and your melatonin intake at night can help improve your sleep schedule.

However, the blue light emitted by phone screens, computers, televisions and tablets restrains your production of melatonin, having a negative impact on your circadian rhythm.

Dr Siegel of the UCLA School of Medicine explains this further, saying:

“People are exposing their eyes to this stream of photons that basically tells your brain to stay awake and not go to sleep yet. You’re checking your email, you’re looking for texts. It tells your brain ‘don’t secrete melatonin yet, it’s not time for sleep.’”

Reducing your melatonin production makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Therefore, it’s best to avoid screen lights for at least 30 minutes to an hour before bed.

So next time you get the urge to pick up your smartphone before you go to sleep, try picking up a book instead. You’ll feel relaxed, rested and ready to face the day come morning.

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